It’s been nearly two months since Tony DiCicco died of cancer, so I’m more than a little late in writing this tribute about the former women’s national team soccer coach.
I don’t even have a good excuse other than the fact I was selfishly focused on other things (retirement, family vacation) when DiCicco died June 19. However, my memory was jogged earlier today when I was thinking about recent deaths of sports celebrities like Ara Parseghian, Don Baylor and Darren Daulton. When I went about my googling, I was reminded that DiCicco was no longer with us.
I’m sure there are many of you who are wondering why I’d even bring it up after so much time has passed. Heck, as much as I love soccer, I only interviewed DiCicco a handful of times.
But that was enough to realize that he was a rare coach who always seemed to know how to get the best out of his players while motivating them to find ways to bring the best out of their teammates.
My introduction to DiCicco’s brilliance came during the 1996 Atlanta Olympics when he guided Mia Hamm & Co. to the gold medal at Sanford Stadium at the University of Georgia in Athens.
Before then, he had been the goalkeeper coach when Anson Dorrance led the U.S. women to the 1991 World Cup title in China. But as Dorrance said himself during DiCicco’s memorial service, very few people were paying attention to women’s soccer back then.
If you were a female athlete, your best chance to be noticed was still basketball, golf, tennis or track and field.
“When we were given the reigns, the United States had never won a game in international competition,” said Dorrance.
Dorrance remembered that between 1987 and that ’91 Cup, he, DiCicco and Lauren Gregg led the women’s national team through a grueling 43 games on foreign soil in an effort to instill camaraderie and toughness in the players.
Even then, DiCicco was the one who always brought enthusiasm to the forefront. Never mind that the women’s national team players back then were not paid, wore hand-me-down men’s uniforms, traveled during that first World Cup via cargo planes, coal trains and run-down school buses and stayed in low-end motels where they chose to sleep on top of the sheets in their street clothes. Oh yeah, they practiced on fields that resembled parking lots.
“There weren’t any perks back then,” said Dorrance.
He joked that in choosing China as host ”FIFA tried to hide the first women’s world championship in case it failed.”
Dorrance also recalled that the team meals mostly included meat from dogs, cats and ox “which meant the players mostly ate Snickers.” However, DiCicco didn’t use the abundance of the sponsor’s candy bars as his dinnertime pass.
“He pretended he loved the food, so he ate everything that he was served,” said Dorrance. “Lauren and I were also convinced that if it would have helped morale, Tony would have eaten the table.”
When DiCicco took over as the women’s head coach in 1994, Dorrance knew the squad was in good hands. Sure enough, after winning Olympic gold, he led the U.S. women to their second World Cup, also on home soil, in 1999.
If you don’t remember DiCicco’s brilliance, then think Brandi Chastain and her sports bra moment after scoring the decisive penalty kick against China.
DiCicco also led the U-20 women to a world championship in 1998.
While Hamm played for Dorrance at North Carolina, an argument could be made that she blossomed under DiCicco’s coaching, scoring 99 of her 127 national team goals when he was the coach.
“Tony never put us in a situation he didn’t think we could handle,” Hamm said at the memorial service. “He used words like us and we and never you and I.”